Manipulating Altruism to Fuel Addictive Greed
I have recently been reading a novel, The Gilded Age (1873) by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. It was the first attempt at a long work of fiction by either author and is now considered notable, not so much for its literary quality as for having called attention to the rampant political corruption, rapid growth, and irresponsible economic speculation which characterized America in the latter nineteenth century.
The title implies an age which has the superficial appearance of the classical “Golden Age” but conceals a reality which is far baser, less substantial, and more liable to corruption and decay. The term, which originated in this novel, caught on, and persists to this day as the term for American society from 1877 to 1900, between Reconstruction and the Progressive era. Actually, what Twain and Warner describe is Reconstruction, and about a third of the novel takes place in Missouri before the Civil War, inviting the reader to draw connections between abuses on both sides of that watershed event, involving the same cast of characters.
While reading it, I could not help but be struck by certain parallels between the 19th century “Gilded Age” and America in the early 21st century, which might be termed the “Mylar Age.” The gilding on steamship fittings and cheap ostentatious furniture manufactured by immigrant child labor in New England factories was, after all, real gold, whereas the impressive superficial façade of our current culture is plastic, and comes from China.
Both the Gilded Age and the Mylar Age are characterized by extremely rapid economic expansion, during which many bottom feeders and unscrupulous operators rose to the top of the economic heap and were able to use that position to secure political advantage, setting up a feedback loop. In the 19th century actual territorial expansion predominated. In the late 20th century globalization of markets increased the territorial scope of corporations while keeping a large part of the operations outside of the political oversight of the American public. There is still a power and wealth feedback loop, but it draws upon forces over which our system, to the extent it is still democratic, has no control. One unfortunate result, in both eras, is a rapid expansion in wealth inequity, masked at least in the initial stages by improvement in the standard of living of the lower classes, though not in proportion to the rate of economic growth.
I subtitled this piece “Manipulating Altruism to Fuel Addictive Greed,” to focus on one phenomenon spelled out in considerable detail in the novel, of which I see numerous examples in my own community, and that is capitalizing on people’s natural inclination to be seen as doing good in the world in order to induce them to support causes, either through direct contributions or legislative action allocating and raising taxes, which do little to actually ameliorate the problems they purport to address but are immensely lucrative for the people pitching and backing the charitable endeavor.
In the novel, Laura, a cynical and manipulative woman, has inherited a tract of land in Tennessee with reserves of coal and iron on it. She and her family do not have the resources to develop it themselves, and her first inclination is to sell it to the highest bidder. A corrupt politician who is notable for his hypocritical support of causes decides that the most profitable course of action is to obtain government subsidies to develop the land as a source of income for an educational institution for freed Negroes. That sounds like a laudable aim, but neither Laura, nor Senator Dilworthy, nor most of the people involved in the venture believes that negroes are capable of benefiting from education beyond the primary level. If an earlier railroad subsidy scheme Dilworthy pushed through Congress on the grounds that it would stimulate the economic development of a very poor area in Missouri is any indication, the appropriation has already been earmarked for costs unrelated to the purported goal of improving public welfare, including bribes to congressmen.
To cite a present-day analog, my own community, and the State of Oregon generally, we are faced with a growing homeless population and a diminishing supply of affordable housing, and I see our City council and State legislature (both heavily skewed toward liberals who profess a concern for the poor and downtrodden and got their positions by appealing to an electorate which is genuinely, if perhaps not very wisely, concerned about human welfare) proposing solutions that have not worked very well in the past and logically will work even less well in the future. Raising local taxes to subsidize St. Vincent de Paul to construct a small number of subsidized housing units to be rented to low income families pinches landlords who are already renting at below market rates, spawns a paid bureaucracy to determine who is deserving of the subsidies, and ultimately decreases the stock of housing available to working people.
If the local economy were actually expanding, rather than experiencing illusory expansion due in no small part to inflation in medical care costs and an undependable source of Federal funds to underwrite that, the effect would be less noticeable. Bubbles and balloons, however, eventually burst, and the subsidies and appropriations currently being put into place for housing and medical care, and the poorly underwritten loans that shore up an educational system which is the other mainstay of our local economy, have the semblance of a gaudy Mylar balloon from the Dollar Tree, one, perhaps, with a smiley face on it, already beginning to show signs of deflation from having been too long on display.
Book images are scans from a 1875 printing of The Gilded Age
Balloon – Mike Mozart on flickr – some rights reserved